Owen hopes for the ultimate mad Hatters' tea party

After years of turmoil on and off the pitch Blue Square Bet Premier side Luton are in touching distance of regaining their Football League status. Steve Tongue talks to their long-suffering chairman

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The Independent Football

As a fall from footballing grace, it must be unparalleled. In the autumn of 2006, Luton Town beat Leeds United 5-1 to stand fifth in the Championship, raising hopes of a return to the highest level of English football; three successive relegations later they were out of the Football League altogether.

Town, who had dropped out of the top flight just before the Premier League and its riches arrived, even do dramatic contrasts in the course of a single season. Like taking 42,000 supporters to Wembley to win the Johnstone's Paint Trophy a month before losing their League status. Or heading back there today for the Blue Square Conference play-off final with 30,000-plus followers, not long after losing to Braintree and Forest Green Rovers.

Nick Owen, the television presenter and club chairman, has seen all this and much, much more in his 54 years as a mad Hatter. For Luton fans of his generation – he is 64 – Wembley first meant the 1959 FA Cup final and a 2-1 defeat by Nottingham Forest. The young Owen was at boarding school, though he had seen his first match at Kenilworth Road with his father the previous October. He would soon learn that this was a club whose ups and downs were more frequent than the popular Yo-yo of the time.

Wembley also provided the highest of highs: "April 24th 1988," he quotes from memory, "when we beat Arsenal 3-2 in the Littlewoods Cup final. That was a wonderful day. But there have been all sorts of promotions too. We've been up and down the Football League unbelievably. From Cup finalists in 1959 to the Fourth Division in 1965. By the early Seventies we were in the top flight again. We don't do mid-table mediocrity. In fact for the last six seasons we've been either fighting relegation or in the play-offs every single year."

That covers the period in which Owen graduated from celebrity fan to chairman, after a new consortium called Luton 2020 (the date by which they hope to return to former glories) took control of a financially stricken club.

"The future was very bleak indeed," he says. It was about to get worse. "After being relegated from the Championship we were deducted 10 points for going into administration and went down again. And the season after that we started on minus 30 points. I haven't met anyone in football who thought that was fair.

"People come up to me and talk about it and the word 'outrageous' is the one that is most used. It was the heaviest penalty that any club has ever suffered in the whole of European football history."

The punishment consisted of 15 points for being unable to secure a company voluntary arrangement from the Inland Revenue, which became 20 because of having had two previous administrations.

Then the Football Association added 10 points for paying agents through a holding company instead of the football club. "That was the real killer," Owen said. "We felt 10 points could have been suspended, which would have given us a chance." With crowds of up to 8,500, Luton have been the Conference side everyone wants to beat. Relegated Hayes& Yeading, who groundshare with Woking, have barely attracted that number in total this season.

"Without any doubt, teams are lifted when they come to our place," Owen says. "There's an incredible disparity within the League, which has so many former Football League clubs in it."

Yet as with so many of those sides dropping down, even when retaining a full-time staff, the jump back up has been tantalisingly difficult. Luton have been close. The first season they finished second but lost their play-off semi-final to today's opponents, York City. Last year defeat came in the final at Eastlands, on penalties, to AFC Wimbledon. This time, suddenly concerned about missing out on even the play-offs after a home defeat by York at the end of March, the board sacked manager Gary Brabin and appointed Paul Buckle.

Owen, in line with his BBC contract, is not allowed to be involved in hiring and firing, but his colleagues' decision, however brutal, has paid off. "The people on the board who interviewed Paul were enormously impressed by his vigour, his knowledge, his attitude to discipline and tactics. What was impressive about him was his record at Torquay, who he'd got up into the Football League via the play-offs. Then he went on to Bristol Rovers, where he didn't have a particularly happy time.

"The first game of ours he saw was Braintree away on Easter Saturday, where we played abysmally and lost 3-1 in front of 1,700 people. Then after he officially took charge we won four and drew two of the remaining six games, including a last-day victory away to the champions, Fleetwood, to clinch our place in the play-offs."

In the semi-finals, Luton were comfortable winners against Wrexham, and so Wembley beckons again,albeit against a York side who are something of a bogey team.

York dropped out of the Football League in 2004 but they have been to Wembley four times in as many years, winning the FA Trophy there as recently as last weekend against Newport County.

So they should not suffer any stage fright and Luton, being Luton, can hardly afford to take anything for granted.

Ups and downs: The long road into the League

Automatic promotion and relegation between the Conference and the Football League began in 1986-87, when Burnley survived on the final day and Lincoln City went down, to be replaced by Scarborough.

Promotions from the Conference were, however, dependent on their stadiums meeting certain criteria – a rule which precluded the champions going up for three years in succession in the mid-1990s – Kidderminster, Macclesfield and Stevenage were all forced to remain in the Conference. Every champion has been promoted since Macclesfield in 1997.

Since 2003 the number of teams moving up and down increased to two each season, the second of the promoted sides moving up via a play-off system adopted from the Football League. The sides ending the season in second to fifth place met in two-legged ties, with the winners playing off in a one-off final to join the leaders in going up.

Doncaster became the first side to go up via the play-offs; AFC Wimbledon the last.

Dropping out: Clubs relegated from League who have yet to return

Conference/Blue Square Bet Premier

Gateshead – went down in 1960*

Barrow 1972*

Southport 1978*

Newport County 1988

York City 2004

Cambridge United 2005

Kidderminster 2005

Mansfield Town 2008

Wrexham 2008

Luton Town 2009

Darlington 2010

Grimsby Town 2010

Lincoln City 2011

Stockport County 2011

Blue Square Bet North

Boston United 2007

Subsequently dissolved

Halifax Town 2002

Rushden & Diamonds 2006

Chester City 2009

*failed to gain re-election to League under old system